Ancient Egypt Online

Abu Simbel

While the pyramids of Giza are perhaps the most recognizable artifacts of the ancient Egyptian world, following closely behind are the Abu Simbel temples in Southern Egypt, built over 3,000 years ago during the reign of King Ramses the Great.

Abu Simbel refers to two temples: The Great Temple and The Small Temple. Each temple is commissioned by Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC.

Many scholars of Egyptian history believe that the two temples of Abu Simbel were an act of ego, pride and love on the side of Ramses 2. He ordered these temples built to:

Abu Simbel Picture of the Abu Simbel Temples

Abu Simbel refers to two temples: The Great Temple and The Small Temple. Each temple is commissioned by Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC.

Many scholars of Egyptian history believe that the two temples of Abu Simbel were an act of ego, pride and love on the side of Ramses 2. He ordered these temples built to:

  • Commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. To represent the battle, the base of the temple was carved with figures of bound captives.
  • Intimidate Egypt's neighbors, the Nubians. It was Ramses’ way of trying to make an impression upon Egypt’s neighbors, as well as to force Egypt’s religion upon these neighbors.
  • Honor Nefertari: The Small Temple is a monument to his most beloved queen (out of his many wives), Nefertari. It is also dedicated to the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor.
  • Honor himself: The Great Temple Ramses had built to honor himself, dedicating it to the god Re-Horakhty.

The history of the temple of Ramses II begins with the twenty year effort to build these impressive structures, along with four other rock temples built in Nubia during his reign. The construction of Abu Simbel started around 1244 BC and was finished around 1224 BC.


The Small Temple


The Small Temple
Image of The Small Temple


The Abu Simbel temples are a pair of temples, one larger than the other. The Small Temple facade is about 28 meters long by 12 meters high. The entrance is marked by six colossal figures, each over ten meters in height. There are four figures of Ramses himself and two of Queen Nefertari.

This temple marks only the second time in the history of ancient Egypt that a Pharaoh dedicated a temple to one of his wives. It was also the first time that the statue of the wife, Nefertari in this case, was carved the same size as the image of the Pharaoh himself. Usually, the wives statues never measured higher than the Pharaoh’s knees, but Nefertari’s statues was a full ten meters high.

Along with the six colossi stand smaller statues that present Ramses’ and Nefertari’s children. Just inside the entrance sits a large hall, supported by six pillars, each carved with the head of Hathor, as well as scenes showing the King and Queen making offerings to various other Egyptian gods. At the end of the large hall is a doorway, which leads to another room decorated with scenes of Ramses II and Nefertari with Egyptian gods. Further rooms illustrate similar Egyptian scenes.


The Great Temple

Photo of the Great Temple

The larger temple is located 120 meters from the small temple of Nefertari. The facade of this structure, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, is 35 meters long and a full 30 meters high.

Flanking the entrance are four seated colossal figures, each a towering 20 meters high. Each of these large figures is a depiction of Ramses II, seated on his thrown, wearing his double crown. Around the figure’s knees are small carvings of some of his wives and children.

The entrance to the large temple of Abu Simbel is crowned by a carving of Ramses worshiping the falcon-headed god Re-Horakhty, usually referred to simply as Ra. Inside the temple is a triangular layout, with rooms decreasing in size as one progresses into the temple, similar to many other Egyptian structures.

As with many ancient Egyptian temples, the Abu Simbel temple was positioned to interact with the sun. The axis of the temple was set so that twice a year, on October 20 and February 20, the sun’s rays would hit the entrance of the temple, casting its illumination onto the sculptures of the Egyptian gods on the back wall. On these days, all of the statues are lit except for one, that of Ptah, god of the Underworld, who stands in perpetual darkness. Some believe that these dates of illumination correspond with Ramses birthday and his date of coronation, but whether that is true or not, it is certain that these dates were of some importance in ancient Egyptian culture.

The Rediscovery Of Abu Simbel

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt - The Discovery of Abu Simbel

JL Burckhardt

Of course, over time, the temples stopped being used, eventually becoming covered by the dessert sand. By the 6th century BC, the Great Temple was already covered in sand up to the knees of the statues, and both temples were eventually forgotten until rediscovered in the early nineteenth century.

Abu Simbel was reportedly first rediscovered in 1813 by a Swiss scholar named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. History says that as he was preparing to leave the area of Lake Nasser, by traveling down the Nile, Burckhardt came over the mountain and saw the front of the great temple, the rest of it having been buried in the sand. Burckhardt told his friend (Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni) about the discovery, and Belzoni joined him at the site to help with the preliminary excavation. Despite all of their effort, the two were unable to dig out the entrance of the temple at that time.

Belzoni returned four years later, together with the English explorer and Egyptologist William John Bankes, and was able to reveal the entrance and to enter the base of the monument, taking every small item of value with him when he left. Many believe that the name given to the temples, Abu Simbel, comes from a young local boy who had seen the buried temples through the shifting sands, and purportedly guided Burckhardt to the temples.

The Relocation Of Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel was originally constructed just 280 km outside Aswan, on the western bank of Lake Nasser. In the 1960s however, the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River, and it was feared that building this dam would flood Lake Nasser to such levels that the temples of Abu Simbel would be submerged.

Concerned for their countries’ history, Egypt received support from the United Nations and embarked on a four year effort to relocate the two temples of Ramses II. So, where is Abu Simbel located? The temples were dismantled, moved 60 meters up the sandstone cliff that they originally stood on and were then reassembled. Great lengths were taken to reassemble the two temples in the exact, original orientation they had held to each other and the sun, and they were covered with an artificial mountain, much as they had been originally.

Here's a map of Abu Simbel's location:

The relocation of Abu Simbel has cost over 40 million US dollars, took 4 years to complete (1964-1968), and is one of the most amazing feats of archaeological engineering in the history of the world.


The Abu Simbel Temples Today

Near the re-erected temples now stands a man made dome, which houses an exhibit of photographs, detailing the entire relocation. Now one of Egypt’s most visited tourist attractions (complete with a sound and light show), this pair of temples have come to be called part of what is called the 'Nubian Monuments'.

Thousands of tourists visit these temples daily, arriving by plane via a field constructed near the temples, and by guarded convoys that depart twice daily from the nearest city of Aswan.